Schools increase anti-drug efforts

Crisis hot line, skits seek to help parents, students

Phone number on ID cards

September 30, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

After her eldest son died of a heroin overdose 3 1/2 years ago, Thomasina Piercy knew she had to do something to fight teen drug use.

Last school year, she introduced a compelling drug-awareness program at all three dozen of Carroll County's back-to-school nights.

This year, she knew she had to do more. So she set up a 24-hour crisis hot line for students.

"Michael tried to call me that night," she said of the cold evening in March 1999 when 19-year-old Michael DePinto died of an overdose. Michael's friends told her it probably was the first time the 6-foot-6-inch Westminster High graduate and basketball player had tried heroin.

"But he couldn't talk and his friends didn't know my phone number," Piercy said. "They give the kids emergency crisis numbers, but they're on the office walls at school, not where kids need them at 1 o'clock on a Saturday night when they're in trouble."

The crisis hot line is in addition to Piercy's ambitious program of parent presentations and an encyclopedic volume of substance abuse information that she published in school newsletters each month last year.

Piercy, principal of Mount Airy Elementary School, had the phone number printed in many places she thought teen-agers might see it - on their school folders, on school-issued book covers and most importantly, on the student identification cards high schoolers carry with them.

The phone line is staffed by adults who have a complete list of phone numbers for the county's treatment programs, counseling programs and other substance abuse services. It is not associated with a law enforcement agency. If the caller needs emergency medical treatment, the hot line staffer will urge the student to call 911.

Piercy and her team of 185 community leaders, high school drama students and families affected by substance abuse also expanded and sharpened this year's back-to-school night presentations. Students were given a larger role in skits meant to shock complacent parents who think that drug abuse will never afflict their child. Their program is called "Not My Kid."

"If there is one thing parents ought to take away from our presentation tonight, it is ... that drugs are widely available at all of our area schools," Jeff Schnorr, an 18-year-old Westminster High student, told parents at Mount Airy Elementary's back-to-school night last month.

"It means that teen-ager sitting across from you at the kitchen table today sees drugs openly passed in the corridors and on the school lawn and parking lot. He knows and likes kids who use drugs. She may be experimenting or thinking about trying drugs," he said.

"Your kid - the one who doesn't give you much trouble except griping about taking out the trash or straightening her room. The kid who is doing OK in school, maybe doing really great. You know, the kid with whom you think you have a good relationship. The one who makes you laugh. The one who does everything you ask, eventually. The one you'd never suspect."

Schnorr's admonishment follows a scene in which a woman brags to a friend about her children's good grades and extracurricular activities. Moments later, going through the mail, she finds a letter from a friend of her son's warning that her son was so strung out at a recent party that his friends almost called an ambulance.

"The whole thing really scared me and I just can't ignore what happened," the mother reads in the letter. "I've known [your son] long enough to know that he usually makes pretty good choices, but lately he's been hitting this stuff pretty hard. What worries me is that all of us know kids in our school who started out just partying a little and then ended up with some heavy drug problem. Three guys that we know are dead because of this drug thing."

The scene ends with the arrival of a uniformed police officer telling the mother that her son has been taken by helicopter to Maryland Shock Trauma Center for a drug-related incident.

"What I love the most about this is that it's real," Piercy said, explaining that the contents of the skit's letter are from a real note written by a Carroll County student to the family of a friend who was in trouble with drugs. "It is not a script. That letter is real. The action actually occurred. And it's all real. It's a real kid's voice in this."

To Kathy Schnorr, 52, a Liberty High drama teacher, and Donna Lentino, 47, who wrote the skit's dialogue and recruited their sons to perform it, it was important that the drug-using teen-ager was from a two-parent home where his mother and father are involved in his life.

"There are many instances where the parents have done everything right, and we're saying it can happen to them. It can happen to anyone," Kathy Schnorr said. "You can have a fantastic relationship with your kid, you can have a kid who is doing beautifully in school, and you're still at risk. That's the audience we're targeting."

"It isn't to make parents totally paranoid," Lentino added, "but it's almost like a town crier giving a warning: `Don't relax just because your kids are in high school and things look like they're going well.' "

Their efforts are hitting home.

Audience members weep. They write Piercy letters about losing friends and siblings to drugs. Parents who would never think of attending a drug-awareness presentation if it were at a "drug symposium" are picking up Not My Kid brochures.

"This is so completely demanding," Piercy said. "But all those little things are immeasurable and maybe, to us, invisible. But we feel compelled to keep trying. If we can touch one child, that one will touch another and we will make an impact."

The hot line number is 866-367-0968 or 410-857-1301.

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